The best part of Electra Onion Eater, which opens Buntport Theater Company's thirteenth season, comes at the beginning, when Erin Rollman stages a television show called Cooking With Electra and proves yet again that she's one of the top comic actresses around. Poor Electra is aiming at Julia Child-style chumminess and cheer, but her output consists solely of onion tarts, and her sorrow is overwhelming. She chops and chops, but her anguish breaks through in great howls. She picks up a vicious-looking cleaver and tries again, uttering a cry of vengeance with each chop — Hah! Hah! Hah! — as the blade comes down rhythmically and you fear for her fingers. Periodically she breaks off for more shrieks and moans, or to calmly explain the biology of tears. The warring expressions on Rollman's pale face are priceless, and this scene is completely original, howlingly funny, almost frighteningly intense.
Television dominates this original play based on the story of Electra and written by members of Buntport and Drew Horwitz. The action is set in the 1950s, and Electra has a small, clunky television set in her kitchen. When her favorite soap starts, she pauses in her endless chopping and leans in to watch. In the living room, her mother, Clytemnestra, played by Hannah Duggan, is ensconced in a cozy chair in front of another television. You can hear the soap they're both watching. It's the work of musician/sound artist Adam Stone and concerns a doctor, the blind patient to whom he wishes to donate his corneas in an operation he'll carry out himself, and an obsessive, stalking lover — and in a twisted way, it shows that the melodramatic imaginings of classical Greek tragedy are still with us today...or our view today of the '50s. These moments when they're absorbed in the same program represent the only time that Electra and Clytemnestra are remotely in sync with one another. We've seen some intense theatrical mother-daughter pairings recently, but this is the most intense yet: These women hate each other with a black-hearted, icy fury.
Electra plans to kill her mother because Clytemnestra is responsible for the death of her father, Agamemnon, and, like Gertrude in Hamlet, is now happily cohabiting with the man who helped in the deed, Aegisthus. The murder was motivated by Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia — Clytemnestra's other daughter and Electra's sister — to appease the gods and cause them to smile on his military ventures. Electra is hoping her long-lost brother, Orestes, played by Erik Edborg, will return to help in her task of vengeance. Why the onion pie? Because sometimes even the most dedicated heroine of a Greek tragedy needs a little help in summoning the endless supply of tears she's required to shed.
Electra Onion Eater
Presented by Buntport Theater through November 23, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, buntport.com.
Agamemnon is buried in what looks like a narrow alley behind the kitchen, and Orestes does indeed come back — wearing a snappy cordovan leather jacket that matches his orange-brown shoes and accompanied by a friend named Bruce (Horwitz) — to venerate the grave. He knows Electra is longing to see him, but he won't reveal himself to her just yet. His plan involves spreading fake news about his own death to lull Clytemnestra into a false sense of security. Then — presumably because he's unaware of the existence of that lethal cleaver — he'll kill her with Bruce's pocket knife. So Electra and Clytemnestra fight. Bruce and Orestes plot. Offerings, mostly of tufts of hair, are made on the grave. In moments of deep joy or sorrow, the protagonists sing commercial jingles.
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Electra Onion Eater showcases, once again, the comic inventiveness of the Buntport troupe, but the rest of the play doesn't live up to the inspired lunacy of the beginning. Peeling off the layers of this Onion may be entertaining, but reveals no deep meaning.